Monday, July 02, 2007

Liberty vs. Equality

My FindLaw column for today describes the difference between the majority and dissent in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 as playing out the tension between the "anti-caste" and "color-blind" principles of Justice Harlan's dissent in Plessy, with Justice Kennedy straddling the divide. I link these respective positions to egalitarian and libertarian conceptions of anti-slavery. Although I don't put the point quite this way in the column (because of the nature of the audience), I might have also associated these respective views with the "anti-subordination" and "anti-discrimination" understandings of the Fourteenth Amendment. I suggest that there is no clearly right answer in a debate between these pairs of principles, but I nonetheless conclude that the Parents Involved dissent has the virtue of leaving this unanswerable conundrum to the democratic process.

Here I want to respond to an objection I anticipate from those who favor the color-blind/libertarian/anti-discrimination side of this debate. The objection goes like this:
You people on the other side of this question are full of it. You don't believe in judicial restraint in other contexts. Indeed, you don't even believe in judicial restraint in this context. If you had the votes you would impose your own views in the name of the Constitution.
To which I respond:

1) Don't blame me. I actually prefer a version of the anti-discrimination principle to the anti-subordination principle. See my article on the subject here.

2) Actually, it really isn't true that the anti-subordination folks have simply beat a tactical retreat. They did not say that race-based affirmative action by institutions with no prior history of race discrimination was constitutionally required, nor did liberal Justices ever push hard for a constitutional rule that would have treated racially disparate impact as triggering some sort of heightened scrutiny. The charge that the liberals don't care for judicial restraint more generally is certainly true, but that's true of the conservatives too. So the name-calling is a wash.


egarber said...

Not sure where I read it (if it's good, we'll just say I invented it :) ), but another variation centers on whether the 14th guarantees equal opportunity, or equal *result*.

The idea here is that given the history surrounding the 14th era -- where the Freedmen's Bureau actively engaged in race-based efforts to find opportunities for freed slaves -- it would be overtly "activist" to say the government has no right to think about race in any context.

But at the same time, that doesn't go so far as to guarantee some outcome based on an individual's race or heritage.

It’s kind of like a continuum with two endpoints: opportunity and result. When a certain line is crossed, granting of result directly discriminates against those not receiving the benefit. But on the other side of the line (toward the opportunity dynamic), you’re in the realm of legitimate public policy. Applied practically, this means that minority outreach to increase the number of black applicants at a college passes muster; however, using race as a component to grant an actual slot goes too far.

PG said...

But conservatives have beautifully muddled the equality of opportunity versus equality of result in their discussion of Seattle, because what could be more "equality of opportunity" than putting all students into diverse public schools for elementary and high school? Yet because this is a results-oriented calculation, one that tries to overcome the racial compositions that would occur based on self-segregated housing patterns, conservatives declare that it's trying to achieve equality of result. Anti affirmative action groups are even attacking minority outreach to increase the number of applicants at a college; the Center for Individual Rights now is going after Asian Americans, which some people like Prof. Eugene Volokh had described as the most likely losers for race-based affirmative action. So much for that alliance...

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